Live Justly for Lent: Welcoming Returning Citizens

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Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6)

Why do justice during Lent? Isaiah doesn’t mince his words about the kind of fasting that makes “your voice heard on high.” Refraining from eating and drinking in a self-interested fast while you oppress your workers doesn’t please God. “Sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house” does (Isaiah 58:7).

In East Harlem, our church neighborhood, over 40% of residents live below the poverty line, unemployment is 12%, and approximately 400 parolees are released on parole each year. Coming home to the community is no cakewalk for them: over half of formerly incarcerated individuals sent home to Harlem are rearrested within 18 months of their release.

Every Thursday morning for the last five years, volunteers from neighborhood mosques and churches have offered hospitality to returning citizens. Parolees sit in the chairs down a long hallway at the Harlem Community Justice Center waiting to see their parole officers. While they wait, volunteers offer hospitality in the form of a cup of coffee and a danish. The message is simple: You are welcome home. Your community needs you.

Here are five ways you can help formerly incarcerated reenter and give back to society:

  1. Find out where the prison facilities and prisoner releases take place in your county or state. For example, here is the map for Michigan.
  2. Work with the Corrections Department of your state and your congregation to find out if it is possible to meet individuals coming out of prison
  3. Collect basic toiletries, undergarments, and if relevant, public transportation cards and map. People leave prison with very little. Consider an offering of new socks to be gathered upon the collection plate on Palm Sunday — the “original” prison ministry Sunday when Jesus encounters Rome’s “criminal justice system.
  4. Write a letter to someone who is incarcerated.
  5. Consider hiring someone who is formerly incarcerated. Learn how here

Freedom means choices — a tough order for the men and women coming out of prison and used to having no choice about anything. Decisions about juggling work, family responsibilities, health, and community obligations are difficult for all of us. They are particularly daunting for those coming out of prison. Our Lenten fast calls us to fight for freedom and “undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free” and to assist those coming out of bondage into freedom and all the new challenges that come with it.

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I would enthusiastically agree that both churches and individuals do well in providing help to past or present incarcerated persons and their families.  There are few areas of concern where the need is greater and potential impact more profitable.

But I do cringe at how this article frames what is discussed as strictly a matter of "justice."  Indeed, neither the lead-in verse and sentence -- nor any other part of the post -- makes mention of "mercy."  A better lead-in verse would be Micah 6:8, which commands us to both "do justice" and "love mercy."

As an attorney, I have been involved in questions of justice in behalf of inmates and ex-inmates.  But we do well to clearly understand that we are obliged to extend mercy even when there is no question about justice.  Most of those we should help out are in fact not "oppressed" persons we must "[let] free," as this articles states.  Some should remain incarcerated inmates.  Still, we do well to serve them, while incarcerated, and their family members waiting for their release -- because of our "love of mercy."